Right now The Beautiful Game doesn’t look so pretty on this side of the pond.
When Belgium knocked Brazil out of the World Cup in Russia last Friday, it meant no team from the Western Hemisphere would make it to the tournament’s semi-finals for the first time since 2006. Soccer pundits immediately began waxing about the seemingly waning role of the Americas on the global fútbol stage.
They pointed out that no New World side has won the Cup since Brazil did it in 2002 – and even that once proud soccer giant is best known today for its humiliating thrashing by Germany in the 2014 Cup (in Brazil, no less) and for the infantile injury theatrics of its marquee player, Neymar.
They reminded us that Argentina, which hasn’t snagged the big prize since 1986 – when Diego Maradona was lifting his nation on the pitch instead of embarrassing it in the stands – keeps failing even though it’s got the world’s greatest striker, Lionel Messi.
But what they haven’t provided much of is explanations. And so I’d suggest they start not with coaches but commerce. Namely: the fact that Latin America exports its soccer stars as gratuitously as it ships soybeans, oil, copper and all the other commodities that account for a ridiculous two-thirds of the region’s exports.
Most of the year, stars like Messi and Neymar don’t play in their native countries. They’re basking in the European leagues and their eight-figure salaries.
Latin Americans are of course proud to see paisanos like Colombia’s James Rodríguez dribbling circles around the big boys in Spain, Italy, France and England. But just as Latin America’s excessive dependence on commodities exports has weakened its economic foundations – the continent doesn’t really make much of anything value-added with those resources – it seems fair to ask if its fútbol export model is weakening its own fútbol culture.
As former Argentine star Jorge Valdano argued recently in The Guardian, “Our [soccer] diaspora saw us lose one of the great teachers: emulation.”
Meaning, when a country’s Messis and Neymars are dazzling in Barcelona and Paris every weekend, it might be harder for players, coaches and officials back home to add all that world-class value to the resources that go into a World Cup team.
And Valdano cites a key reason for this predicament: globalization.
At the turn of the century, very few soccer aficionados in America were waking up at 7 am on Saturday mornings to watch their favorite Premier League or Serie A teams play across the Atlantic. Today it’s a ritual for fans like me (Come On You Spurs!) thanks to the globalized broadcasting schemes of outlets like Sky and NBCSN.
That’s helped raise the billion-dollar revenues that pay the million-dollar contracts of any Latin American player who, “however mediocre, is three goals away from being sold abroad,” as Valdano wrote.
Latin America has filthy-rich TV empires too. Globo in Brazil. Televisa in Mexico. But aside from their telenovela marketing, they – and the region's soccer federations – suffer from the same lack of macroeconomic vision that keeps their countries stuck in the “developing” column. As a result, even the soccer leagues in nations as large as Brazil and Mexico look threadbare compared to the Europeans. I do sometimes watch them on Spanish-language networks – but I wouldn’t get up at 7 a.m. to do it.
That disparity could be undermining Latin America’s national soccer infrastructures – which are among its proudest cultural showcases. For the past century, in fact, national soccer performance has been Latin America’s great self-esteem equalizer. It was the first and brightest platform where New World countries could prove themselves competitive with their former colonial overlords.
Soccer was once a place where Latin America could make the world forget the region’s dysfunction – especially how far it trailed the developed world economically. Now the concern is that soccer might be turning into a reminder of that gap.
Brazil had umpteen opportunities to overtake Belgium last week. But compared to the grainy but glorious videos of past Brazilian World Cup champions – the teams of Pelé and Ronaldo – Neymar’s squad looked out of whack in clutch moments.
As out of whack as the rest of Latin American exports look.